Theory of mind (ToM) is the ability to infer mental states, including desire, belief, and emotion, in other people; essentially, it’s the skill set that results in empathy. Now, researchers from The New School for Social Research have demonstrated that reading literary fiction enhances an individual’s theory of mind.

"We see this research as a step towards better understanding the interplay between a specific cultural artifact, literary fiction, and affective and cognitive processes," the authors stated in a press release.

Five Experiments

Mind-reading is a skill that is fundamental to all social relationships. This is never more apparent than when the ability is absent; those who lack theory of mind, such as autistic individuals or those with Asperger’s, find communication awkward and near impossible at times. Social scientists often wonder what may contribute to or enhance this ability. David Comer Kidd, a Ph.D. candidate, and Emanuele Castano, professor of psychology, hypothesized that reading might be one activity that allowed an individual to exercise this all-important skill.

To quantify the effects of reading on a participant's theory of mind, the researchers designed a series of simple experiments. First, participants read a selected text and then their 'mind-reading' abilities were tested. “We used several measures of ToM to make sure the effects were not specific to one type of measure, thus accumulating converging evidence for our hypothesis,” the researchers stated in a press release. One of the assessment tools was the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test, which asks participants to look at black-and-white photographs of an actor's eyes and indicate the emotion expressed by that actor.

Because they wanted to demonstrate that different types of reading material would have different effects, the researchers gave the participants texts from one of three genres: literary fiction, popular fiction, and nonfiction. Excerpts from recent National Book Award finalists or the 2012 O. Henry Prize winners for short fiction represented literary fiction. Selections from bestsellers represented popular fiction. And articles from Smithsonian magazine represented non-fiction.

Artistic Technique

What did the researchers discover? Surprisingly, participants assigned to read popular fiction and non-fiction performed equally on the theory of mind tests, while those assigned to read literary fiction performed significantly better. Kidd and Castano also found that no matter the content of the literary texts — participants read stories with vastly different subject matter — all produced similarly high ToM results. The researchers theorized that the reason why literary fiction has greater impact on ToM is that it requires more intellectual engagement and creative thought from a reader. In particular, they point to the underlying literary techniques employed by writers.

“Features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers or romances. Through the use of […] stylistic devices, literary fiction defamiliarizes its readers," Kidd and Castano wrote in their paper. "Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration."

Source: Kidd DC, Castano E. Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind. Science. 2013.